Wednesday 13 March 2013

Handel's Imeneo at the London Handel Festival

Luke D Williams as Imeneo Photo credit Chris Christodoulou
Luke D Williams as Imeneo
Photo credit Chris Christodoulou
Imeneo was Handel's penultimate Italian opera, and it has only been an infrequent visitor to the UK. This year's London Handel Festival opera staging at the Royal College of Music's Britten Theatre allowed us to see the work on stage, with a cast taken from the Royal College of Music's International Opera School. The opera was double cast and I saw the second performance, on 12 March, with the second cast. Paul Curran's production, in Gary McCann's designs, set the work in a modern spa hotel and encouraged a lively performance from the cast.

Hannah Sandison as Rosemene Photo credit Chris Christodoulou
Hannah Sandison as Rosemene
Photo credit Chris Christodoulou
The plot is quite simple. Before the opera starts, an Athenian youth Imeneo is in love with Rosmene, she does not return his love. But, in order to spend more time with her, he dresses as woman. When a group of girls is kidnapped by pirates, Imeneo is amongst them. The opera opens with Rosmene's anxious father, Argenio, and lover, Tirinto. When the girls return with Imeneo, he having slain the pirates when they slept, he requests Rosmene's hand in marriage. The remainder of the opera is simply the working out of this plot, with the added sub-plot that Rosmene's sister, Clomiri, is in love with Imeneo but dare not tell him. Finally Rosemene fakes madness to allow her to decide and chooses Imeneo. 

Handel's libretto derived not from an opera, but from an Italian serenata which composer Nicola Porpora wrote, to a text by Silvio Stampiglia, for a Royal wedding in Naples in 1723. Handel set Stampigilia's libretto substantially unchanged, but he changed it from a two act, to a three act work. Handel began the work in 1738, but there was no 1738/39 opera season and his attempts to perform the work in 1739 came to nothing. It was finally premiered in 1740. During this two year period, the opera went through a number of changes. Partly, this was because Handel kept adapting the work to different projected casts, for instance the role of Imeneo starts as a tenor before being converted to a baritone.

Perhaps more important are Handel's other changes. From the first, he reduced the roles of Imeneo and Argenio, and boosted that of Rosmene and Tirinto. For the 1740 performances he also added a chorus, which could well have been sung off stage as it comments on the action rather than participating in it. Porpora's setting of the serenata is purely joyful, the ending is uncomplicated. But Handel seems to have decided to opt for something more complex, by reducing the role of Imeneo so that Tirinto is the prime male character. He is the one we expect to marry Rosmene. Handel's use of the minor key in the opera also subverts our expectations. So that the ending is rather more uncertain, less clearly defined.

Winton Dean describes the work as one of Handel's most Mozartian pieces, and indeed there is something of Cosi fan tutte about it. The temper of the piece is light, without quite veering into the satirical as some of Handel's later works can. Early audience members described it as an operetta, but this may be due to the works shortness and use of a single set, rather than for any reason of comic business.

Curran and McCann's setting of the opera in a modern spa hotel is an idea that would work pretty well. McCann's set consisted simply of a range of classical arches which the chorus re-arranged at times, with a view out to the sea. Though the view changed in colour during the opera, the predominant feel was of grey. A tonal palate which the costumes stuck to as well.

With a talented young cast, all seemed set for a fine performance. But Curran subverted this, by inserting a great deal of extra action into the show. From the first notes of the overture we had to watch Bradley Travis as Argenio anxiously playing with his mobile phone. This continued throughout the overture and at a certain point I wanted to say, yes we get the point so now send him off. But instead, Travis was joined by Tai Oney's Tirinto and the two characters prefaced Tirinto's lovely first aria with a great deal more dumb show in which mobile phones featured quite heavily.

Throughout the opera, Curran showed a complete lack of trust in his source material. Extra dialogue in mime was common, and virtually no aria escaped unscathed from Curran's desire to keep the action going. Vary rarely did he let singers perform the arias in a simple, direct manner; when he did so, such as Rosmene's aria opening Act 3, the result was striking. But it seemed a fundamental premise of the staging that, if a character was singing they had to be singing to someone, preferably with someone else in the background to distract matters further.

Curran had also clearly decided that the piece was a comedy, and applied much comic business to music which was essentially serious, light perhaps but not buffo. Much of the staging veered towards a Carry on Film or perhaps the TV series Benidorm. Katherine Crompton's Clomiri was turned from a timid young girl into a man-eating vamp who displayed her assets at the drop of a hat. The plot was 'cheered up' with such business as Clomiri attempting to display herself to Imeneo, culminating in her finally giving him an erotic massage. The two sisters, Rosmene and Clomiri, showed their lack of regard by daubing each other with green gunk from a face-pack. General behaviour was boorish and Imeneo and Tirinto got into fights. All in all, if you'd have been staying at the spa hotel then you would have complained to the management. Alas, all we could do was sit and enjoy the singing.

The cast were all highly talented and there was much to enjoy musically in the performance. Hannah Sandison's Rosmene was highly personable. She has a rich, vibrant voice which shows potential for development into more dramatic repertoire. As a Handelian she was a neat stylist and nicely expressive. Despite the productions excesses, she managed to convey the character's increasing distress at having to decide between Tirinto and Imeneo. Doing so, of course, in a fine sequence of arias which were vividly sung. We are never quite sure what Rosmene really feels, Handel never gives her a love scene, but Sandison ensured that we continued to empathise with the character in her dilemma.

It was Tai Oney, as Tirinto, whom Handel provided with the most opportunities. He is the character who feels the most, in a sequence of ravishing arias. Oney took these and gave us a vividly characterised portrait of a young man tortured by love. The opera opens with a pair of lovely lyrical pieces for Tirinto but most notable were his jealousy aria Sorge nell'alma and the remarkable, stark aria Pieno il core which comes after Tirinto has announced that he will die if Rosmene does not choose him. Oney was wonderfully intense here. He was a warm sounding voice, with a full, expressive vibrato and was clearly comfortable with the role's mezzo-soprano tessitura.

By contrast, Imeneo is rather a cold character, though Handel never lets us get under his skin. Luke D Williams played him as personable but shallow. Williams sang the arias creditably, but it was in the recitatives that Williams was able to bring out Imeneo's shallow, but delightful character.

Handel concludes Act 2 with trio, in which Tirinto and Imeneo both plead with Rosmene. Staged without any gimmicks, it was an example of what the production could have been. Just before Rosmene's mad scene, Handel gives us another remarkable scene in which each lover intercedes with Rosemene, Handel playing the same scene twice, once with each lover. The mad scene itself is musically remarkable, and Sandison sang with confidence and bravura, even whilst doing all of the comic rolling of the eyes as if she was Mad Margaret.

Katherine Crompton was everything that director Paul Curran wanted as Clomiri; essentially think Barbara Windsor in Carry on Camping. Crompton too had a large, vivid voice. In her early scenes, her upper register sounded a bit tight, but she relaxed later, though you felt that she negotiated some of the passagework with care. The result was personable and highly creditable, and when combined with her stage antics was in many ways a bravura performance.

Bradley Travis was a personable Argenio and displayed a lovely focussed baritone voice in his arias, particularly the one where he tells the story of Androcles and the Lion to Rosmene as a warning.

The small chorus brought a nice change of texture to the opera, and acted as supers in much of the remaining action.

With Lawrence Cummings in charge, there was much to enjoy in the orchestral performance and the whole opera was commendably stylish in its musical values.

By some oversight, the argument and synopsis had been omitted from the programme book and the London Handel Festival did not seem to have felt the need to remedy this. This was a shame, as it meant the some of the details of the plot were never made clear, such as quite why Imeneo makes his first appearance in a dress. And without a plot summary to highlight the underlying seriousness of the work, the audience clearly felt at liberty to laugh at all of Paul Curran's jokes.

This was a welcome opportunity to experience Handel's Imeneo on stage, performance by a stylish and talented cast. I just wish that the director, Paul Curran, had trusted Handel's dramatic skills a little more.

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